Playing for history can be hard for an athlete. It can weigh heavily on you, with the pressure growing and growing. But it is history – and the quest for a record-equalling 24th Grand Slam singles title – that has kept Serena Williams hungry for tennis.
That hunger, that desire, has brought her to Saturday’s Wimbledon final against Romania’s Simona Halep, which is the American’s match to win or lose. Ever since Serena returned to tennis last year, after taking a break to becoming a mother, the carrot has been the thought of equalling Margaret Court’s all-time record.
This will be the third time that Serena has had a match for a 24th major, after losing to Angelique Kerber in last year’s Wimbledon final and to Naomi Osaka in last year’s US Open final, but right now she is playing as well as she ever has. Serena is so great on the grass that Centre Court at Wimbledon is almost like a second home for her.
If Serena is healthy on this stuff, she’s so hard to beat. No one else has Serena’s ability to play herself into shape, as in tennis shape, during a Grand Slam tournament, and here she has been helped by competing in the mixed doubles with Andy Murray, which gave her a few more hours on the match court.
In her singles semifinal against Barbora Strycova, Serena was playing so well that you couldn’t just see that quality, you could hear it, too. When Serena is getting hold of the ball, and hitting the ball cleanly, when it is popping off the strings, her shots even sound different.
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In her last two Grand Slam finals, against Kerber and Osaka, Serena has faced a couple of uncomfortable opponents, but I feel as though Simona is a more comfortable adversary for her. But Serena knows that she has to beat Simona. Simona’s not going to beat herself.
If Serena wants to win, she has to keep on playing in the same way she did in her semifinal. She’s doing everything well at the moment, including moving well, which allows her to get into position properly, cutting down on the unforced errors.
Serena can also push opponents, and have them rocking on their heels, without taking any chances. She doesn’t have to hit her shots into dangerous spots on the court. If she hits the ball safely to within six feet of the sideline and the baseline, that’s still a forcing shot because of the pace of her ball.
She is making her opponent move, and the ball is travelling so quickly that they don’t have time to get there and get set. It’s easier for Serena to have opponents on the defensive. When another player swings at 80 per cent of their potential, and Serena swings at 80 per cent of her potential, Serena’s ball is 10 per cent faster.
On top of that, Serena never hits the same ball twice; she always has her opponent moving rather than waiting for the ball.
When Serena is playing well, she jumps on your serve, so you’re on the defensive. It’s hard to get into rallies with her. And when you can’t get into rallies with Serena, she will beat you, because she has that much more power.